a long the riverrun

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Before his death on May 13, 1987, Richard Ellmann completed work on what was soon to become his second critically acclaimed biography, of Oscar Wilde, prepared a revised edition of his first, on James Joyce, and somehow found time to begin planning the collection of essays under review here, a long the riverrun. The title, although apparently provided by the publisher, is nevertheless apt, conflating the last words of James Joyce’s last novel, Finnegans Wake (1939) and its first, those which conclude with those which begin, in much the same way the essays collected here, at the very end of Ellmann’s life, range over very nearly the entire length of his exemplary career. Of the twenty essays, all but one have been previously published and, again, all but one concern the great modernist writers—and their contemporaries and immediate predecessors—to whom Ellmann devoted himself over the past half-century. Although the very earliest pieces, from the 1950’s, now appear rather dated—less, however, in content than in approach—all manage to be formidably erudite without ever becoming dully pedantic; all are marked by a graciousness of style, a generosity of spirit, and a knack for making the perfect, often provocative summary statement: “’What distinguished decadence from corruption or philistinism was that it could be discussed with relish as well as concern.” The essays also exhibit Ellmann’s genius for discerning connections and lines of succession where a lesser mind would undoubtedly have found, at worst, nothing at all and, at best, mere proximity in space or time. In the opening piece, for example, Ellmann displays a characteristically vast range of reference, moving deftly from Alexander Pushkin, Charles Baudelaire, Stephane Mallarme’, Walter Pater, Theophile Gautier, I. K. Huysmans, and Arthur Symons, to D. H. Lawrence, James McNeill Whistler, A. E. Housman, Soren Kierkegaard, T. S. Eliot, Emile Zola, Henry James, and Mario Paz. This is not mere name-dropping, not even of the specialized, pseudo-scholarly kind found in the literary histories, which Ellmann, himself a contributor, criticizes for their reductiveness. Rather, each name forms an indispensable link in Ellmann’s chain of connections; each serves in its own small way to make up the necessary background against which he makes good his case for seeing Wilde, Yeats, and Joyce as “counter-decadents” striving against the decadence of their age in order to effect, similarly and successively, a new Hellenism in the arts and in society.

Critical of those who turn “innovations into inevitabilities,” Ellmann invariably takes a wider view, seeing a constellation of forces at work where others posit a simple equation. As he points out in the bluntly and brilliantly titled essay, “Yeats Without Analogue,” the mind of the artist “is a rage, not a warehouse.” Efforts to understand a writer in terms of a movement or, worse, specific identifiable sources and influences are therefore doomed from the start. The literary relations between writers, for example, prove far less one-sided and one-directional than generally believed and more a matter of mutual (although often reluctant) influence arising out of some initial opposition. Thus, in revising the manuscript of The Waste Land (1922), Ezra Pound brought about a change not only in Eliot’s poem but in his own later work as well. Thanks to Pound’s harsh critiques of Yeats’s poetry, Yeats did reluctantly become more attentive to technique—and Pound more aware of the incoherence of his own work as a weakness (as Yeats felt) rather than a strength. And although W. H. Auden came to lament the influence Yeats had on his early work—a point critics have been quick to parrot—Ellmann believes that readers ought not to remain blind, as it seems Auden generally was, to the ways in which he also benefited from that influence.

More interesting, in part because more exhaustive, is Ellmann’s tracing of the way in which Henry James’s reading of Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873) influenced the writing of his first novel, Roderick Hudson (1876), and gave impetus to what was to become a major theme in his work. Writing about the aesthetes whom Pater championed enabled James “to represent people like himself under the guise of disclosing their shortcomings.” He covertly criticized himself by overtly criticizing his fictional aesthetes and, until the writing of his last completed novel, The Golden Bowl (1904), remained safely and successfully in the closet. What happened to James, and what happened in similar ways to Joyce, Auden, Yeats, Pound, and others, is this: “A powerful idea communicates some of its strength to him who challenges it.” It is Marcel Proust’s view, quoted by Ellmann in one essay and implied in all, most interestingly, perhaps, in “The Two Faces of Edward.” The writers of the Edwardian period embraced secularism with what can only be described as a nearly religious intensity. They replaced the God they rejected with a Life made in His image: orderly, meaningful, virtually divine. It was, however, a Life—or Life Force—entirely lacking in the disruptive energy that was to characterize the modernist writers who were to follow, and who were themselves in turn strengthened by the very ideas they challenged.

Although “The Two Faces of Edward” rather nicely sums up...

(The entire section is 2222 words.)